When Marshall Soper, the former Socceroo great, witnessed the demise of Harry Souttar with his ACL injury in the recent Socceroo World Cup home clash against Saudi Arabia on November 11th, his thoughts flashed back to the 29th March, 1987 when he was playing with Sydney Olympic against Sydney City.
With one turn of his body early in the first half, Soper was writhing on the ground in agony after tearing the cruciate ligament in his right knee and was forced to sit out the season following a complete knee reconstruction.
It was ironic that Luke Brattan, the Sydney FC holding midfielder, also befell the same fate in the FA Cup clash against Sydney Olympic on 24th November.
A lot of water has fallen under the bridge since Soper captivated the football community after his first appearance for Apia-Leichhardt in the 1981 NSL season, followed by his rapid rise to Socceroo stardom in 1982.
Who could ever forget the matches against Juventus in 1984 when the Italian champions toured Downunder.
His performances, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne were simply mesmerising as he toyed with the Juventus defence, leading to the expulsion of Cabrini, the famous Italian left back, who had no answer to Soper’s skills in Sydney.
Yet Soper’s failure to capitalise on his huge talent was also exemplified after his outstanding display on the Socceroo’s tour match against Arsenal at Highbury in November, 1984. On the night he gave the England left back and captain, Kenny Samson, nightmares while scoring two goals for the Socceroos in a 3-2 loss to the Gunners.
In August, 1985, Red Star Belgrade, the Yugoslav champions toured Australia and the goal Soper scored at St George Stadium in the 4-1 win by the Socceroos was world class.
Beating two Red Star defenders at the half way mark, Soper sprinted to a position just outside the penalty area. The advancing keeper tried to narrow the angle but Soper pushed the ball with the outside of his right foot into the corner of the net.
It was at this time, people recognised that this man was no mere mortal as he made the big name Red Star players look ordinary that day.
Soper’s life has always been dedicated to the game he loves in his extraordinary playing career and for the many years he has spent in technical coaching roles in Australia and Asia.
He returned to Australia in March, 2020 from his three year stint as Technical Director at Yangon United in Myanmar due to Covid 19 and is currently weighing the options in his football life.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Marshall Soper discusses his experiences in Myanmar, the standard of football in Australia and how it can be improved, reflects on his playing career and outlines his aspirations in football.
In your three years in Myanmar, what was your experience of facilities, youth development and football standards?
Like the rest of Asia, the country is pouring money into football while the investment in Australia is at a standstill.
Yangon United has a full time professional setup for the 1st team, U 21’s and U/18’s. They own their stadium, have an accommodation facility adjacent to the stadium complex which has 120 rooms, full time chefs, restaurants, coffee shops, swimming pool and gymnasium and support staff.
I had my own driver and the players would walk from their accommodation to the training ground while the club has a fleet of buses to transport supporters to matches.
The club plays in the National League and in 2019 we played in the Asian Champions League and topped the group.
The first year I joined the club, they hadn’t won anything but in that same season, they captured the three domestic trophies.
It was a full on job for me and not without stress levels while working with coaches, adapting players to professionalism and training seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.
The youth teams played during the week and the 1st team at the weekend so I was either at a training session or a match.
It’s a country which is crying out for help and so committed to youth development which is sadly not the case in Australia.
Here, there’s not the push to develop youth because clubs want to win on the day, rather than having a long term plan. Hence the drop in standards of our national team and our resulting poorer ranking in Asia where we struggle to beat countries like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
You attended the Socceroos clash with Saudi Arabia on November 11th.
What were your impressions?
If you look at the positions the players take up on the pitch, there seems to be a startling resemblance to what the National Curriculum espouses.
The game is still too basic as we use very wide players to cross the ball from three quarters of the pitch at best and there is no attempt to beat opponents, especially through the middle of the park.
On the night, Mitch Duke and Jamie McClaren should’ve started the match to attack the heart of the Saudi’s defence, particularly with the speed of Martin Boyle.
If it hadn’t been for that great block in the first half by Harry Souttar which precipitated his injury ,Australia would’ve probably lost the match but overall our tactics were negative, while the Saudis were perfectly prepared and played us out of our comfort zone.
They dominated the middle of the park and we failed to penetrate from the wide areas.
The truth is, the Saudis had enough of the ball and chances in front of goal to win the game easily.
I performed a basic statistical analysis of A-League players four years ago and discovered that only 10% of them were competent on both sides.
Can you explain this, and what responsibility do technical directors have to improve this situation?
At the moment, there is a poor understanding of how to develop the complete player in both the A-League and at NPL level.
As I mentioned previously, the emphasis is on winning rather than developing and in the A-League we’re importing questionable overseas players who are earning easy cash, rather than producing youth players of high quality.
In terms of the youth policy, are we coaching the coaches correctly?
Also, are we appointing people in TD roles with the right knowledge and philosophy to develop players to their maximum potential?
Do these people understand the full spectrum e.g. do they know what it’s like to be injured, what is required of a technical player or a hard working player to be successful and can they develop two sided players.
I doubt if we have the right people in this country to accomplish these objectives.
While you have been back in Australia, have you been approached to coach?
I’ve had a number of calls and conversations from A-League clubs who have talked about the position of striker or front third coach but I prefer to look at starting my own academy where I can determine the structure and provide a transparent pathway to European clubs.
Recently, I signed an agreement with 90.1.1 Management Agency which is located in Central Europe and my name is now on their website.
The organisation is a group of licensed football agents who carve a pathway for young players and suitable movement for established players.
I want to cater for quality European players to come to Australia and Asia and for young players from Australia to play in Europe and Asia.
Currently, Kusini Yengi from Adelaide United is managed by the group.
Not a year goes by when football supporters ask the question as to why you withdrew from the 1985 World Cup qualifiers. It’s firmly believed, if you, Craig Johnston and Tony Dorigo had been available for the two home and away matches against Scotland, our chances to qualify for Mexico,1986 would have increased considerably.
I have to carry this burden on my shoulders but we were receiving a very poor pay deal with the national team compared to what the clubs were paying us.
If we were injured for the Socceroos we would’ve received small compensation so we had to ask ourselves, was it worth playing when you were feeding a family?
The answer for me at the time was no and remember there was no PFA in existence at the time to support the players.
Your rejection of the Arsenal manager, Don Howe’s contract offer on the Socceroo world tour in November, 1984 after you scored two goals against the Gunners and played mind games with the England captain and left back, Kenny Samson, is still something your followers can’t understand .
Can you please explain?
I had other offers from other clubs, apart from Arsenal and as I look back at what could’ve been, the matter becomes purely hypothetical.
Did I make a difference in Australian football? History records, I was the only player to win five National Cup competitions, two each with Sydney Olympic and Parramatta Eagles and one with Apia-Leichhardt.